The dynamics of American decline

“In the decade before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, there were already signs of a long-term trajectory of decline, even if the key figures in a Washington shrouded in imperial hubris preferred to ignore that reality. Not only has the new president’s maladroit diplomacy accelerated this trend, but it has illuminated it in striking way.

“Over the past half-century, the American share of the global economy has, for instance, fallen from 40% in 1960 to 22% in 2014 to just 15% in 2017 (as measured by the realistic index of purchasing power parity). Many experts now agree that China will surpass the U.S., in absolute terms, as the world’s number one economy within a decade.

“As its global economic dominance fades, its clandestine instruments of power have been visibly weakening as well. The NSA’s worldwide surveillance of a remarkable array of foreign leaders, as well as millions of the inhabitants of their countries, was once a relatively cost-effective instrument for the exercise of global power. Now, thanks in part to Edward Snowden’s revelations about the agency’s snooping and the anger of targeted allies, the political costs have risen sharply. Similarly, during the Cold War, the CIA manipulated dozens of major elections worldwide. Now, the situation has been reversed with Russia using its sophisticated cyberwarfare capabilities to interfere in the 2016 American presidential campaign — a clear sign of Washington’s waning global power.

“Most striking of all, Washington now faces the first sustained challenge to its geopolitical position in Eurasia. By opting to begin constructing a “new silk road,” a trillion-dollar infrastructure of railroads and oil pipelines across that vast continent, and preparing to build naval bases in the Arabian and South China seas, Beijing is mounting a sustained campaign to undercut Washington’s long dominance over Eurasia”. (excerpt from The World according to Trump, Or How to Build a Wall and Lose an Empire”. By Alfred W. McCoy

My comment:  It doesn’t nearly end there. The educational system is all awry.  The costs have sky-rocketed as universities have invested huge sums in …sports facilities and expensive sports staffing, and then put lousily-paid adjunct professors in front of paying students. The level of general knowledge is getting worse (history? dismal; you can’t run an empire if you know no history).  The medical system (I sound like a record) is only o.k if you are rich;  in fact life generally is great – as long as you are rich.  You now have a President who wants to halt immigration and build a useless wall if he can, without asking who is to do the painting and plumbing. The constant flashes of racism and shootings of black men by white police hide the fact that too many are indifferent to foreigners and have been taught to fear them, especially moslems.   The hi-tech industries of California seem to be staffed by Indians, as far as I can see.  Americans don’t have the skills? Visit MIT, as my wife and I did a while ago,  and you imagine you are in Hong Kong or Peking  (they have to have an off-campus establishment for secret work, where presumably the  Chinese are absent).

Even though as a teenager I and my school friends all knew the days of the British Empire were ending, the interesting thing debated in the Debate Society was what would come after the end of it.  But meanwhile the media was running daily, copious pieces about the Commonwealth and remaining dependencies.  People were engaged and interested.  The UK was an outward looking country.  Huge numbers of men and women had lived and served overseas  (my sister in India, myself in Cyprus, for instance).  Compare that with the United States, where the people with foreign experience are the military and a handful of foreign service officers and adventurous students.   What goes on in, say the Middle East remains of little interest to most people, except in the Washington bubble.   This is not healthy.


  1. I think it’s important to see the distinction between absolute and relative decline. Relative decline is inevitable, because the developing world has a larger, faster growing and younger population. Being poorer, the developing world will have a faster growing economy because of comparatively lower wages and taxes. It is generally easier to catch up with richer nations than for richer nations to get even richer. But contrary to what Trump would have you believe, the increasing wealth and influence of the developing world is an opportunity, not anything to fear. A larger global middle class will demand more goods and services from us, so we have a lot to gain.
    Absolute decline, on the other hand, is not inevitable at all. Just because other nations are succeeding doesn’t mean we must fail. If America will decline in absolute terms, it will be because of the choices its leaders have made, not because of anything Russia, China or Iran do. Putin may have influenced the 2016 presidential election, but he did not create the American healthcare or social security system, nor is he responsible for poor US educational attainment. America must take responsibility for its own failings, rather than blame other countries.

    There are some on the radical left who believe American decline is a good thing. I would strongly disagree. Yes, America’s record on race, civil liberties and military interventions leaves must to be desired. But an America in decline will be bad for everything the left believes in. Countries which don’t have constitutionally limited governments or a history of liberal democracy will increase in global clout. Russia, China and the Middle East are considerably more socially conservative than America, so they will seek to promote their values and not American-style liberalism. Also, a declining America would make life worse for the immigrants that have chosen to make the country their home. To an even greater extent than today, they will be blamed for America’s problems. A declining America would turn in on itself, becoming less welcoming to others. America may be highly flawed, but it is not beyond redemption.

    • As usual a very balanced and thoughtful contribution. I happen to think that the US decline is absolute, not just relative, because it is so divided and so in hock to a tiny number of rich and corrupt people. The whole atmosphere is unhealthy, and trust is becoming , if not non-existent, at least rare. Maybe I am getting old and remember too much! I do think some measure of community and care for others are essential in a democracy, but then I believe in what Epicurus said, and he saw in front of his own eyes the dire state of what was left of Greek democracy. Sometimes there are parallels.

      • “There are some on the radical left who believe American decline is a good thing.”

        If your sentence contained a few qualifications, I think it would be a more realistic assessment of the political “left.” ignoring the term “radical” for present purposes, it might be closer to the state of things to say that “some on the left” are generally agreed on the core issue.

        That is, that the breakdown of democratic accountability within the two most powerful aspects of American life–the government (particularly the military) and corporations–is driving the decline. Holding accountable those overwhelmingly powerful aspects of American life would strengthen American society and international policies immeasurably.

        • The reason why I said ‘radical’, is because I wanted to distinguish between various degrees of leftism. I don’t believe for a second that Hilary Clinton or even Bernie Sanders want America to decline. I was only referring to a fringe group of people. But I accept that it wasn’t the best use of the term.

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